BEYOND BOK CHOY
Jennifer Yee Collinson introduces some of her favourite Asian vegetables.
Jennifer Yee Collinson demystifies Asian greens
SURE, THESE DAYS everyone’s familiar with bok choy, but now a much wider array of Asian vegetables is available at greengrocers and markets across the country. For some people, figuring out what these mysterious greens are and what on earth to do with them can seem like it’s not worth the effort, but their distinctive flavours lend themselves brilliantly to everyday cooking. So come on, show them off – serve and dress young leaves like you would any leafy salad or cook them like you would spinach, broccoli or cabbage. If you remember nothing else, Asian vegetables like to be “hot and steamy”. Also called Chinese matrimony vine, the long and slender, unbranched woody stems are covered in small oval leaves. The plant has mauve flowers which form small elongated deep redorange berries (wolf or gogi berries) that are dried and used in Chinese ceremonial chicken dishes or the famous “drunken” chicken. They are usually sold in bunches with 30cm-50cm-long stems. To prepare, pull the tender leaves off the central stalk, taking care of any thorns as you do so. Wash the leaves by swishing in a tub of water and drain. Wilt the leaves as you would for spinach – in a hot pan with a drizzle of oil – or add to clear broths, pork or chicken stock or miso for a comforting bowl of goodness. The leaves are mildly bitter.
CHINESE BROCCOLI OR CHINESE KALE (GAI LAAN/ GAI LAN/KAI LAN) Brassica oleracea, Alboglabra group
This popular vegetable appears on nearly every Chinese restaurant menu. Once you have bought your bunch of gai laan, trim the stems at the point where you can puncture the stalk with your finger nail, or peel any tougher ends prior to using. The leaves and white flower buds are edible, but choose young stems where the buds are tiny. Often served as long slender stems or cut into more manageable lengths, it has a taste similar to broccolini. Gai laan can be stir-fried with a splash of gin or Shaoxing wine; or blanched, drained and served with a dressing or with slices of garlic or finely julienned ginger and oyster sauce. I am sure this was the best ploy my mother used to encourage us to love vegetables. This vegetable has a flat rosette profile with dark, glossy rounded leaves that have a bubbly texture and pale green stems. As they grow close to the ground, rinse by plunging the heads of cabbage vigorously in a basin of water to dislodge any soil. Trim the stems and cook small bunches of this green in a little water or chicken stock until just wilted. Add to stir-fries or use the small young leaves in a green salad drizzled with any Asian-style dressing.
FLOWERING CHINESE CABBAGE (CHOY SUM) Brassica rapa, Chinensis group
This really should be the new “bok choy”. Popular with Chinese cooks, this relative of rapeseed or mustard seed rape is sometimes referred to as “yau choi sum” (oil vegetable hearts). It has glossy grass-green leaves and stems, characterised by small edible yellow flowers. Choose stems where the buds are still closed. I love these vibrant greens cooked quickly in a hot pan with a slick of oil and some shredded ginger or a bruised clove of garlic. Add a couple of tablespoons of water just as you hear the sizzle, whack a lid on to create a steamy environment to hasten the cooking and give the leaves a quick toss as they wilt down and turn bright green. You can dress the choy sum with a light drizzle of sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds if you like, or oyster sauce. Add to dumpling soups and stir-fries.
GARLAND CHRYSANTHEMUM (TUNG HO) Chrysanthemum coronarium
A favourite vegetable with a distinctive flavour, there are several varieties popular in Chinese, Southeast Asian and Japanese cuisine. The most readily available have leaves that resemble soft lobular chrysanthemum foliage and have a mild floral character when cooked. The Japanese variety is more frilled. The stalks, leaves and yellow flower buds are all edible, but choose bunches of greens that have very small closed buds as these can be strongly flavoured. Tung ho are delicious in a clear Asian-style broth, hotpots or wilted in a pan with a cube or two of fermented bean curd (available in jars at Asian food stores).
CHINESE MUSTARD GREENS (GAI CHOY) Brassica juncea
The bulbous emerald green stalks and billowy ruffled leaves distinguish this beauty. There are several varieties of this mustardy cabbage, varying in size and length of stem. Gai choy has a definite mustardy bite that will vary
in intensity depending on the variety. I like to choose individual cabbages with fat fleshy hearts to poach in chicken or pork rib broth for a restorative bowl of goodness. My grandmother would brine and ferment these for use as pickled mustard leaves, which she shredded finely to add a punchy sweet and sour flavour to a panfried whole fish. Choose bunches with medium to large leaves if you are using the fresh leaves raw. Tear the leaves or shred like a lettuce, or use whole leaves to wrap Vietnamese banh xeo pancakes (see page 36 for a recipe). For cooking, cut the leaves into 4cm-5cm lengths and slice across thicker stalks diagonally. Stir-fry with a little peanut oil and julienned ginger.
SHISO OR PERILLA Perilla frutescens
Technically a herb, its culinary use extends across Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asian cuisines. I encourage gardeners to plant this as it readily selfsows and once you have it, you will be rewarded for many seasons. In the spring and summer, green shiso is sold in Korean or Japanese foodstores, and can be found piled into a small stack of leaves sealed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. They don’t freeze well but last for four to five days if stored chilled, wrapped in a damp paper towel in a sealed plastic bag. Try wrapping small morsels of char-grilled meats such as beef, venison or lamb in shiso leaf for a nutty, herbal mouthful of deliciousness. Shiso can also be used to wrap Korean bulgolgi beef or dipped and fried in a crisp tempura batter. Red shiso is traditionally used to colour pickled umeboshi plums, but its unusual herbaceous character can be added to many dishes. Try adding thee small leaves or a chiffonade of larger leaves to Asian-stylee noodle salads or serve with fresh sashimi, tofu, cold sobaa or rice bowls. If you happen to like microgreens, sprout some green and red shiso too add to salads or a Vietnamese banh mi-style filled baguette.
WATER SPINACH (ONG CHOY, KANG KONG) Ipomoea aquatica
Vietnamese cooks call this “morning glory” or water convolvulus, but it’s also popular in Malay and Chinese cookery. Ong choy literally means hollow-stemmed vegetable. The plant has long arrow-shaped leaves and has a similar taste to common spinach. As it wilts down substantially, always choose a generously large bundle of stems and leaves. Wash the water spinach well, and prepare by trimming the stems from the leaves and cutting into 4cm-5cm lengths. Keep the leaves whole or halve them crosswise. Flatten a clove or two of garlic with the blade of a chef’s knife and add to a hot pan drizzled with 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable or peanut oil. Toss the stems briefly until just beginning to colour, add a splash of cold water and the leaves and continue tossing until wilted and the stems are tender. You may want to add some thinly sliced red chilli with the garlic or some fermented bean curd at the end of cooking, which melts into an unctuous sauce. This choy is also superb added to soups and hotpots.
GOURDS BITTER MELON (FU GWA) Momordica charantia
The allure of bitter melon is not only for its ability to balance salty, sweet and spicy heat but for its cooling Yin properties when combined with other foods within a meal. These orb-shaped green gourds have a knobbly surface likened to crocodile skin! Available in summer, choose medium-sized fu gwa that are firm and bright green and 6cm-7cm in diameter. Any smaller and they will be very bitter; any larger is fine but they will not store well. Prepare these by cutting in half lengthwise and scooping out the pith and seeds, leaving two halves that can be sliced or stuffed. If mature, remove the seeds and the red fleshy covering along with the pith, separate the seeds to dry and save for planting next spring. If you prefer a milder bitter flavour, blanch briefly and refresh in cold water before using. Traditionally stuffed with minced pork, dried shrimps, salted turnip and Chinese mushrooms (shiitake) before steaming, they are equally delicious sliced into half rounds and stir-fried with beef in a garlicky, ginger and black bean sauce.
SILK MELON/RIDGED GOURD (SZE GWA) Luffa acutangula
Cousin of the loofah gourd, this is distinguished by deeply grooved ridges and tough outer skin. The gourds can be up to 1 metre long but choose ones no bigger than 4cm-5cm diameter to ensure they are not too mature, or they will be pithy and filled with seeds. Favoured for its silken texture when cooked, it has a mild sweet cucumber flavour. Peel to remove the ridges and skin until the pale green flesh is revealed. Cut in half lengthwise and then in thick 2cm batons or diagonal slices. Add to soups or stir-fry with julienned ginger, chicken and woodear fungus.
A NOTE ON THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Yee Collinson was introduced to the world of Asian greens by her paternal grandmother, who had an extensive kitchen garden where she grew a wide variety of Chinese vegetables for the family table. Collinson has been showing home cooks and garden groups how to choose, prepare, cook and eat Asian greens for more than 20 years through tours of Auckland markets. In her handbook Discovering Asian
Ingredients (2001, Random House), an entire chapter is devoted to helping identify the broad range of leafy Asian vegetables (choy or choi in Cantonese), as well as melons, gourds and herbs that have become more readily available across the country in Asian greengrocers, supermarkets, farmers’ and community markets.
CHINESE FLAT CABBAGE OR ROSETTE BOK CHOY (TATSOI, TAI GOO CHOY)
FLOWERING CHINESE CABBAGE (CHOY SUM)
GARLAND CHRYSANTHEMUM (TUNG HO)
CHINESE BROCCOLI (GAI LAAN)
BOX THORN (GAU GEI)
CHINESE MUSTARD GREENS (GAI CHOY)
SILK MELON/RIDGED GOURD (SZE GWA)
BITTER MELON (FU GWA)
SHISO OR PERILLA